Monday, July 23, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Wrapping it up (2)

[Spoilers galore below, so if you are planning to read it ....]

The most important moment in the book happens in the second-last section, which is called "And sometimes they were very sad". Well, it actually doesn't happen in that section but we get a flashback to it. Here is the order we learn things.
  1. Leonard  proposes to Madeleine while in a manic state but she doesn't know that is what is happening. 
  2. Then the story shifts to Mitchell's experiences in India. The only thing we know of her is that Mitchell receives a letter from Madeleine telling him that she is serious about her "boyfriend" and tells him anything between she and Mitchell is now officially over.
  3. Then the section called And sometimes they were very sad" begins with the aftermath of a disaster. Madeleine and Leonard are married and living with her parents because he had a major breakdown on their honeymoon. They have no where else to live and Leonard is on suicide watch.
  4. And then we get the flashback to the back and forth between Madeleine and her mother in the moments leading up to and immediately following her engagement to Leonard.
Okay, this is where it almost gets interesting. For it here that a moral question arises. What exactly that moral question is isn't clear. Here is how Eugenides brings it up. Madeleine's sister and mother came to visit Madeleine and Leonard and her sister snooped in the medicine cabinet and found Leonard's lithium. When she needs a weapon against Madeleine in a family argument that later takes place, the sister mentions the lithium in front of Madeleine's mother.

The mother and sister leave and Madeleine waits in dread for "the call". When it comes her mother says,
"... manic depression is a chronic condition. People have it their entire lives. There's no cure. People go in and out of hospital, they have breakdowns, they can't hold a job. And their families go along for the ride. Sweetheart? Madeleine? Are you there?'

"Yes," Madeleine said.

"I know you know all this. But I want you to think about what it would mean to marry a person with a ... with a mental illness. Not to mention raise a family with him."

"Who says I'm going to marry Leonard?"
Now that is an interesting quandary.

Let's note first that Madeleine isn't being honest with anyone, least of all herself here. She is in a  serious relationship with Leonard. Even if , like Madeleine, we never bother to think about where a serious relationship is going the inescapable truth is that it is going somewhere. The longer you spend together, the stronger the links between you. But it's worse than that. Madeleine has given up a chunk of her life to go live with Leonard while he does a research fellowship. Doing that and not knowing whether you want to get married is like having sex without birth control for a few months while you think about whether you want to have children.

The great eighteenth and nineteenth century novels would have confronted that issue directly but no one in this story except for Madeleine's mother even recognizes that it exists.

The problem that the novel does struggle with is whether bipolar syndrome (aka manic-depression) is a good enough reason to refuse to marry someone. Let's acknowledge that this is a difficult, gruelling really, decision for Madeleine. She is in love with the guy.

Okay, but let's also remind ourselves of some important details here. When Madeleine learns that Leonard is bipolar they are not a couple anymore. Not only are they not a couple, they broke up because Leonard responded to Madeleine declaring that she loved him by being a manipulative swine. He then has a breakdown but not because of the emotional stress of the break up. He has a breakdown because he stops taking his lithium. She learns about his breakdown and rushes to the hospital to see him.

And then she spends a long time taking care of him. I find this not even remotely plausible, everything we know about Madeleine tells us she would avoid a situation like this. Eugenides, however, has her proceed while wondering about her lifelong aversion to "unstable" people. And the thing that makes this tricky is that Madeleine clearly doesn't believe her aversion for unstable people is justifiable.

We need a modifier here. "Justifiable how?" is the obvious question but I'll leave that blank for now. The problem is that Madeleine loves Leonard and his illness doesn't seem like a good enough reason to avoid him. And again, she has broken up with him when she learns. She doesn't have to leave him, all she has to do is believe that she doesn't have to go back to him.

But she does go back to him even though he isn't the same guy he used to be. Among other things, the massive doses of lithium he now has to take have side effects so they have a lousy social life and a lousy sex life.

Okay, let's flash forward to that conversation between Madeleine and her mother again. Madeleine tries an analogy on her mother:
"Say Leonard had another disease, Mummy. Say he had diabetes or something. Would you be acting the same way about that?"

"Diabetes is a dreadful disease!" Phyllida cried.

"But you wouldn't care if my boyfriend needed insulin to stay healthy. That would be O.K. right? It wouldn't seem like some kind of moral failing."

"I didn't say anything about morality."

"You didn't have to."
No, she didn't have to because the whole discussion they are having is a moral argument. Both are making their points in moral terms and yet neither is willing to acknowledge that they are having a moral argument.

And it's an oddly lopsided moral argument. Phyllida is arguing for prudence and Madeleine is trying to defuse that argument. Madeleine doesn't have an argument of her own. And she never formulates one. What happens is that things start to go better than they had been and Madeleine forgets about the bad times and, more importantly, forgets that any relief she is experiencing is only temporary given Leonard's condition.

The terms she uses to think about this are very telling:
The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.
Yeah sure.

What we have here is a peculiarly modern situation. We have people who argue endlessly in moral terms. Even their aesthetic judgments are made in moral terms. But, for all that, they don't take morality very seriously. Moral argument is only used to manipulate others, and sometimes to manipulate yourself, into behaving in the way that we desire. And that is important because, in the end, all morality comes down to wants: the moral outcome we seek is the one we want. No one believes that morality sits on any solider foundation that personal wants and no one believes that it could sit on anything solider than that. (the technical term for this sort of moral belief is "emotivism".)

The moral question that Madeleine never confronts is this: "Is it morally justifiable for her to end her relationship with Leonard and go look for someone else on the grounds that his mental illness makes the success of any marriage extremely unlikely?"

"Morally" justifiable. That's the modifier that was missing above. The question is not whether it's okay to avoid unstable people but whether it's morally justifiable to avoid a serious relationship leading to marriage with them. As long as Madeleine only treats it like a question of simply "avoiding them" it seems like a  question about unfair prejudice against others—witness how she defuses her mother's reasonable prudential concerns by painting her mother as unfairly biased against Leonard. But Madeleine isn't getting all antsy about having to sit on the same bus as an unstable person, what she is hesitating about is continuing a loving relationship that could lead to marriage. Except that she refuses to confront the question directly and neither does Eugenides.

And it's not just her. Real moral questions, the kind that have real answers that are true or false instead of simply being an expression of our desires tend to do that to us. Because they are so very serious, we'd rather not answer them. It's all so heavy.

And we do owe the person with bipolar syndrome something. We must care about them and even, if we take Jesus seriously, love them. But do you have to consider marrying them if you learn about their condition after a relationship has started?

It would be a different question if you were already married. Certainly, it would be wrong to divorce someone you had married if their bipolar syndrome was diagnosed after marriage. You made a vow to stick by them in sickness and in health. On the other hand, if you married someone who suffered from bipolar syndrome and they hid this fact from you until after marriage, I'd argue that you'd be well within your rights to ask to have the marriage annulled. A lot of people might try to make the marriage work anyway. They'd probably fail too. But they'd try and perhaps others might find this morally admirable.

Let me toss out an analogy here. Suppose you discovered, far into a dating relationship, that the attraction this person had felt for you was temporary and now they no longer felt anything for you. But they still wanted to get married for other reasons. Perhaps they really, really want children or maybe the invitations have all been sent out. It seems a lot easier then doesn't it? I suspect that there are some people who would still get married believing that they can "love enough for both of us" but it's much easier to see that what this person is doing in getting married to someone who doesn't love her is not morally admirable.

We all insist that love is a necessary condition for marriage. But is it sufficient. Try imagining how the novel would have read if madeleine had said, "But we really love one another Mummy!" Jeffrey Eugenides seems to grasp that love is a necessary condition for marriage but it isn't sufficient. What he doesn't seem to want to allow is that this is a question a girl and boy ought to ask themselves before getting married. That they ought to ask it before they even fall in love. Because this love and marriage stuff is serious.

But we can never go there if morality is never confronted as a source of truth. So long as moral questions are only about what we want and don't want to do, a novel like this can never go anywhere. The problem is not—as he sets it up—whether no fault divorce and prenuptial agreements have made the marriage plot impossible. That's nonsense and you can prove it by reading any of Emily Giffin's books which all not only handle the marriage plot , they do it well and at some moral depth.

If you want to get married you need a better reasons than, "But we really love one another and we really get along together and the sexual chemistry is amazing". You need to think about what marriage is where it's going to go and you need to think about whether there is a good reason not to get married.  Jane Austen knew this and that is why the English novel became great. She forces her heroines to confront the question of whether there is a good reason not to get married—and forces is the word because some of them really don't want to face the question— and sometimes they don't get married as a result. But Eugenides never makes Madeleine face it. She just drifts into and then out of marriage and then she sort of "gets over it" but having casual, and not very good sex, with Mitchell. And then the novel ends leaving us wondering why we read it.

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